Has Kevin Durant Already Lost This Year's MVP Race?

by Spencer Suk

rantsports.com

rantsports.com

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the reigning MVP Kevin Durant will be sidelined for 6-8 weeks with a Jones fracture, an injury where the bone at the base of the small toe breaks.  And with just under two weeks until the 2014-15 NBA season tips off, the Thunder will undoubtedly miss their superstar on the court.  But how will this injury impact Kevin Durant’s chances of defending the Maurice Podoloff Trophy?

Well, before Durant went down, Vegas had LeBron James as the favorite to win the MVP this year with 3:2 odds while Durant came in at second with 3:1 odds.  Now, James’ odds have improved to 5:6 while Durant's have fallen to 4:1.  While the odd shifts correctly reflect that Durant’s chances of winning MVP have diminished, Vegas still severely underestimates the uphill battle Durant faces.  Let’s see why by breaking down a few key components to winning the NBA’s most coveted award:

I. Games Played

It is almost so obvious that it doesn’t even get mentioned, but a player must find a way to stay healthy throughout the long, grueling NBA season to even have a chance at winning MVP.  To prove this, let’s take a look at all MVPs since the NBA implemented the 3-point line in the 1979-80 season.

Info from basketball-reference.com

Info from basketball-reference.com

The results are a little surprising.  Out of the 35 MVPs listed above, only ONE has missed more than 10 games in his award-winning season: Allen Iverson in the 2000-01 season.  In fact, Iverson is the only player to have missed more than 6 games (or played less than 92.7% of all games) in an MVP campaign.  About a third (11 of 35 to be exact) of the MVPs were won by a player who played in all 82 games, and the average number of games played by an MVP is 79.7.  In other words, you can’t miss many games.

So what about KD and his foot?  Here are his projected games played based on the 6-8 week timetable for Durant's recovery:

Info from basketball-reference.com

Info from basketball-reference.com

The return dates are very raw estimations based on when the injury was reported (October 13th).  And while Durant could potentially return way earlier or later than the expected timeframe, the 6-8 week span gives us a good reference point.  If Durant misses 6 weeks, he will have missed 15 of the 82 games, allowing him to play a maximum of 67 regular season games.  This is alarming considering Allen Iverson is the only former MVP to have missed more than 10 games, and he only missed 11.  If KD misses 8 weeks, he will miss 20 games, approximately a quarter of the season.

II. Team's Record

It is common knowledge that the MVP must come from one of the best teams in the league.  But just how good does your team actually have to be?  Here is a table showing how each MVP's team did compared to the rest of the league (based on overall record).

Info from basketball-reference.com

Info from basketball-reference.com

Basically, your team must have the best or second best record in the league.  While the average finish for an MVP's team is close to second, 21 of the 35 MVPs were on the team with the league's best record (the two 7th place finishes bring the average down). Furthermore, only 5 MVPs have won the award on a team that finished worse than second in the league.

Thus, for Durant to win MVP, it is essential that the Thunder get off to a good start while Durant is on the mend.  To make this point clearer, look at how OKC has started off the past three seasons, all in which they finished at least second in the West:

Info from basketball-reference.com

Info from basketball-reference.com

In all three years, the Thunder have gotten off to a great start.  They finished 12-3 twice and 11-4 once through 15 games, while ending up 16-4 through 20 games each time, a truly great feat.  But will they be able to do the same this year without their best player? Here's the schedule OKC faces to begin the season:

Info from espn.com

Info from espn.com

The Thunder have 11 home games and 9 road games during this 20 game stretch.  Of the first 15, the Thunder have 9 tough games: road games against Portland, Los Angeles (Clippers), Brooklyn, Toronto, and Denver (one of the toughest places to play in the league due to the high altitude) and home games against Denver, Memphis, Houston, and Golden State.  

In my opinion, OKC would be extremely fortunate to even win half of those games.  While the Thunder do still have superstar Russell Westbrook and shot-blocking extraordinaire Serge Ibaka, the rest of the roster leaves much to be desired.  With Durant hurt and Sefolosha gone, the Thunder don't have many places to go with their starting shooting guard and small forward.  Andre Roberson, Anthony Morrow, Jeremy Lamb, and Lance Thomas will have to fill the void, not exactly the most tantalizing group.  Realistically, I'm guessing the Thunder get around 8 or 9 wins in their first 15.  The last 5 games are against weaker opponents, but New Orleans and Detroit are looking much stronger than they did last year with the growth of Anthony Davis and the arrival of Stan Van Gundy.  I'd be surprised if the Thunder do better than 13-7 without Durant; I have them going 12-8.

Now I know 12-8 doesn't seem that far off from 16-4, but dropping OKC by 4 games last year would have dropped them from second to third in the West, while dropping their overall league rank from second to fourth.  Yikes.

III. Win Shares

Win shares is an advanced statistic that represents the number of wins a player contributes to a team by his statistical performance on the court.  Thus, it's a fairly accurate measuring tool to compare players in the league with only a single number.  Here are the win shares of all MVPs since 1979-80:

Info from basketball-reference.com

Info from basketball-reference.com

Like games played and team record, there seems to be a trend for win shares: 21 of the 35 MVPs also led the league in win shares.  However, there are certainly exceptions. For example, Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs in 2004-05 and 2005-06 while he was not even close to leading win shares either season (Nash's 10.9 vs. Garnett's 16.1 in 04-05 and Nash's 12.4 vs. Nowitzki's 17.7 in 05-06).  So how does this affect KD?

Info from basketball-reference.com

Info from basketball-reference.com

As clearly shown by our Steve Nash example, win shares won't make or break your MVP campaign, but having a high win share can't hurt.  Above, we have taken Durant's 2013-14 win share, which was the 8th highest in the 3-point era, and prorated it to see what it would be if he had missed 15 and 20 games.  In both cases, Durant's win shares would fall below the average of the 35 MVPs.

Now, if Durant is somehow able to duplicate Jordan's 1987-88 win share (this is the highest win share total in the 3-point line era), his win share would actually be on par with the average MVP (and could even be a little higher).

sportsgrid.com

sportsgrid.com

Look... I'm not saying Durant's MVP chances for 2014-15 have already come and gone.  It is entirely possible that the Thunder have a bad start, Durant comes back with a vengeance, and he single-handedly carries them back to the top.

But with LeBron James healthy and poised to lead the Cavs back to the top of the league, Durant will have a pretty big gap to close by the time he comes back.  Durant will need Westbrook to lead the Thunder and keep them near the top of the West... But even if this happens, Durant might not even be the number one MVP candidate on his own team.